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Allen Toussaint 1938-2015

Allen Toussaint 2When someone like Allen Toussaint dies, you go straight to your record collection. In this case the first disc I pulled out was Lee Dorsey’s “Freedom for the Stallion”, one of the most quietly moving songs to come out of the civil rights era: “Big ships sailing / Slaves all chained and bound / Heading for a brand-new land / That some cat said he upped and found / Lord, have mercy, what you gonna do / About the people who are praying to you / They got men making laws that destroy other men / They made money, Lord, it’s a doggone sin / Oh Lord, you got to help us find a way.”

Toussaint’s mournful arrangement — the slow-drag snare and bass drum, the rolling piano, the funeral-band horns — creates the perfect setting for Dorsey’s reflective vocal. There’s a great little moment at 2:24 when the tenor player starts testifying, as though unable to help himself. Such beauty.

And then Betty Wright’s “Shoorah Shoorah”, which Toussaint didn’t produce or arrange. What a song, though, inspiring a performance from a singer in delicious torment: “I check you out from the corner of my eye / You and the Devil walking side by side / You ain’t changed, let’s be real about it / And I can’t change how I feel about it.” Like Curtis Mayfield, Toussaint had a deep and natural understanding of the human condition.

Finally, here’s one he arranged and produced but didn’t write: Lou Johnson’s version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By”, in which an uptown song is taken for a ride all the way down to the edge of town, right where the swamp begins.

I spent a couple of hours with Toussaint last year, at the behest of Uncut magazine. He was wonderful value as he talked about his long history, beginning with learning to play boogie-woogie on the piano during his New Orleans childhood. “I was brought up very Catholic – a lot of Bach and classical music,” he told me. “But I heard a lot of gospel music in the baptist and holy-roller churches around the neighbourhood, and I fell in love with it, just like boogie-woogie. I first heard Professor Longhair on record, and I thought, ‘Good heavens – this is the way I want to go.’ I knew he was from New Orleans, but I wasn’t of an age where I could be where he was performing. All the kids around who tinkered with the piano, we all tried to play like Professor Longhair. One kid would have a few more notes of his music than the rest, and we’d feed off each other. So we came up as his disciples. My mother listened to Strauss and so on, so I heard that, and on the radio there was a lot of hillbilly music with the tinkling saloon pianos, and I loved that, too. It wasn’t hard to get that kind of sound, once you knew the formula. And I loved polkas. So I just found myself having equal respect for all of the genres, and everything I heard, I began trying to play.”

It’s all there, from “Do-Re-Mi” through “Fortune Teller” and “Mother in Law” to “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky” and “Yes We Can”, and on to the fabulous Bright Mississippi album of 2009: the music of a very great man.

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. hamertheframer #

    I first heard him via the Pointer Sisters and Dr John, then Lowell George and Robert Palmer and his work with The Band. He was the genius behind so much great music. I’m listening to Bright Mississippi tonight.

    November 10, 2015
  2. Thanks very much, Richard. I was anticipating something very promptly from you. An absolute hero of mine. So many great songs, arrangements and vocals that he brought out from the artists. Oddly, sadly, luckily..not sure how to say this, but Mr Toussaint began to perform regularly after Katrina.. maybe in being uprooted from NOLA he became restless. I managed to see him twice in Newcastle and once in London. Never ever thought that would happen..couldn’t imagine it. Lee Dorsey records… WOW! Allen’s quirky backing sounds/vocals on those 45s. How can one describe them…gems in themselves. A sad sad day….

    November 10, 2015
  3. I hate to be over eager, but I’m continually amazed and energised by the breadth and depth of your appreciation in all four directions.I Further, how did that breadth/depth of yours develop? Compare,discuss,explain…..I’d love to know more about the machinery. ….Is there a link between Toussaint’s Bright Mississippi and Monk’s?.

    November 10, 2015
    • Yes — it’s the same tune. Joe Henry, the producer, suggested it. Lovely album.

      November 11, 2015
  4. spent two unforgettable days with Mr. Toussaint at Sunset Sound, Hollywood, when we recorded two of his songs with Van Dyke Parks on Discover America; he sort of produced them, but receives no credit; he and VD at one piano is still to be remembered. he told Parks a few years later that the version of “Riverboat” we recorded was his (AT’s) all time favorite.
    the reason he went back out to work was that his studio was destroyed in the
    big storm Katrina; he had no place to produce any more. plus the royalty checks kinda dried up as consumers taste changed. Thank You for it all, Mr. Toussaint.
    .

    November 10, 2015
    • hamertheframer #

      Yes, of course! Discover America was where I first discovered Allen Toussaint…

      November 10, 2015
      • hamertheframer #

        I loved that record. I’m listening to it again now. Thank you!

        November 10, 2015
    • Back in the day, I bought Discover America by mail order from Virgin Records before it had shops, I believe. The attraction was knowing Riverboat & Occapella were being covered, but that whole album got me into VDP in a big way. Still a huge favourite… My listening tomorrow morning, along with Mr Toussaint and Lee Dorsey. Thanks for the inside information- always enjoy these little personal insights

      November 10, 2015
  5. About 30 years ago, I walked into a record store in Sydney, Australia, and they were playing the ‘simple’ piano ditty Happy Times, by Tousan (early Allen Toussaint). I bought the LP on the spot and love all of it. But Happy Times is special. I’ve listened to it… I dunno… 500 times, and it has raised my cheerfulness level every time. Of course, it ain’t ‘simple’ at all. A great composer, arranger and piano player just made it sound that way. The Toussaint magic.

    November 11, 2015
  6. pamela esterson #

    Thank you, Richard, lovely piece. Still can’t get over we won’t be hearing him sing and play this weekend at the Barbican….

    November 13, 2015
  7. dave heasman #

    I found this on a Portobello road stall in 1974 – don’t think it came out in England. Astonishing mix of genres in the backing – 1968 guitar shows strong reggae influence, no?

    November 13, 2015

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  1. Toussaint’s American songbook | Around the edges

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